Teaching Evolution: Alfred Russel Wallace: Geographical distribution

May 2, 2018 • 12:30 pm

by Greg Mayer

Our sixth installment is a paper by Alfred Russel Wallace. Written while he was still collecting in the Malay Archipelago, it is a foundational work in zoogeography, in which Wallace invokes a long history of evolutionary changes of organisms, and geographical changes of the land and water, to account for organisms’ current distributions and affinities. Readers may recall that 2013 was the centenary of Wallace’s death, and that we posted a series of commemorative posts on Wallace here at WEIT to celebrate his accomplishments during that year.  (Follow this link for many WEIT postings on Wallace.)

Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913) was co-discoverer, with Charles Darwin, of natural selection. A gentleman but from a family of lesser means than Darwin, he was largely self-taught. He first made a name for himself by conducting an expedition to the Amazon (1848-1852) with Henry Bates; unfortunately, most of his specimens were lost when his ship sank on the return to England. Setting out again on a natural history collecting expedition, he traveled in the Malay Archipelago from 1854-1862. It was at Ternate in 1858, that, during a bout of malaria, the concept of natural selection came to him. Wallace is widely acknowledged as the greatest figure in the history of zoogeography. A lifelong friend of Darwin, in later life he became a staunch public advocate of socialism and, much to the chagrin of his scientific colleagues, spiritualism. His books include The Malay Archipelago (1869), Contributions to the Theory of Natural Selection (1870, a collection of his papers, including the important ‘Sarawak’ and ‘Ternate’ papers), his monumental The Geographical Distribution of Animals (1876), Island Life (1880), and Darwinism (1889). Andrew Berry has edited a wide ranging anthology of Wallace’s writings, Infinite Tropics (2002).  All of Wallace’s published works are available at John van Wyhe’s superb Wallace Online.  A modern, scientific biography is Peter Raby’s Alfred Russel Wallace: A Life (2002).

Wallace, A.R. 1860. On the zoological geography of the Malay Archipelago. Journal of the Proceedings of the Linnean Society, Zoology 4:172-184.

Study Questions:
1. The comparison of which particular islands’ faunas helped Wallace epitomize the nature of the boundary between the Indian (= Oriental) and Australian regions? What are the geographic, climatic, and geological circumstances of these islands? What are their faunal differences and similarities?

2. What importance does Wallace place on the depth of the sea? Show how he uses it in accounting for the geographical distribution of animals.

3. What explanatory principles does Wallace invoke to explain the phenomena he discusses? What do these principles reveal about Wallace’s thinking at the time he wrote this paper?


21 thoughts on “Teaching Evolution: Alfred Russel Wallace: Geographical distribution

  1. One of the few specimens Alfred Russell Wallace collected to survive from the Amazon, was re-discovered nearly 7 years ago at the University of Oxford Natural History Museum. – Quite put my daughter off butterflies.

  2. Wallace actually got involved in a controversy with a flat earther and devised the “Bedford Level” experiment to show the earth was round.
    The flat-earther refused to accept the result, and proclaimed Wallace a “swindler and theif”. Wallace sued for libel but paid a lot in lawyer’s fees as a consequence.

    On the other hand, Wallace was an anti-vaxxer, but at the time the reasons why vaxinations worked was poorly understood so he may be excused.

    Spiritualism actually appealed to a lot of Victorians who had lost confidence in traditional religion.

    1. Janet Oppenheim’s The Other World is a really good history of British spiritualism if you haven’t read it, I would recommend.

  3. On reading the paper I couldn’t help but wonder, as I often do when reading such historical accounts, how much of the classifications have held up over time and since DNA sequencing.

    Also, I can’t help but be amazed at ARW’s depth of knowledge and experience, especially being a man of limited means. How, if he was working class and not formally educated, did he manage to acquire such an excellent personal education? How did he gain access to scientific books and papers, or how much of his education came as a result of in the field experiences?

    I also can help but feel how much of my life, our lives, is wasted by needless distractions such as computers, tv, radio, sports, social media… I have quick and easy access to two or three large public libraries and my own pretty good library I’ve built up yet I would have to look up so much in order to hold even a halfway intelligent conversation with him about the different taxa mentioned in his paper, the same as when I listen to Tet Zoo as a podcast. I am most certainly aware of my deficiencies but have only my self and my attention span to blame.

    1. Wallace was not working class– he was from a middle class family, and would be known in England at the time as a “gentleman”. He did not go to university (that was for the upper middle class and higher, in general), and worked as a surveyor and school teacher before embarking on a life of collecting– the sale of his collections, for much of his life, was his livelihood. It is indeed the case that he was an accomplished autodidact. By the 1850s, his collections and publications had made him well known among British naturalists, and he was a collegial correspondent of Darwin’s.

      As regards the classifications he used, they’ve held up pretty well for the purposes he used them.


      1. Oh, I don’t know why I was thinking working class, but being just the next rung up the social ladder doesn’t lessen my admiration of his accomplishments. I do need to read more about him and by him.

    2. Me too. It has been so long since I read Wallace’s works that I cannot remember much more than Wallace’s Line.

      Even then I could not tell you offhand how his line departs from what we now know from plate tectonics.

      I can say that I have visited the continent of Australian, though I have never set foot in that country.

      Because I did visit Timor Leste, which is now believed to be on the Australian side of the line determined from plate tectonics.

      But how much mismatch there is on the lines, I cannot say.

  4. He also is in the running for the title of World’s Nicest Person. Conspiracy-minded types have often accused Darwin of stealing credit for evolution and natural selection from Wallace. But Wallace always insisted that Darwin, not he, should get most of the credit. When he later came to write a book about evolution, he titled it Darwinism.

    1. Here is how A.R. Wallace in 1908 compared his contribution to that of Darwin. Said Wallace, “The idea [of natural selection] came to me, as it had come to Darwin, in a sudden flash of insight: it was thought out in a few hours — was written down with such a sketch of its various applications and developments as occurred to me at the moment,– then copied on thin letter-paper and sent off to Darwin — all within one week. I was then (as often since) the “young man in a hurry”: he, the painstaking and patient student, seeking ever the full demonstration of the truth that he had discovered, rather than to achieve immediate personal fame.
      “Such being the actual facts of the case, I should have had no cause for complaint if the respective shares of Darwin and myself in regard to the elucidation of nature’s method of organic development had been thenceforth estimated as being, roughly, proportional to the time we had each bestowed upon it when it was thus first given to the world — that is to say, as 20 years is to one week. For, he had already made it his own. If the persuasion of his friends had prevailed with him, and he had published his theory, after 10 years’– 15 years’– or even 18 years’ elaboration of it — I should have had no part in it whatever, and he would have been at once recognised, and should be ever recognised, as the sole and undisputed discoverer and patient investigator of the great law of “Natural Selection” in all its far-reaching consequences.
      “It was really a singular piece of good luck that gave to me any share whatever in the discovery.”

  5. Wallace’s life and work is still extremely understudied compared to Darwin’s (no surprise there!). One extremely important source of information about his life and work is his correspondence, of which some 5,000 letters survive – in contrast 15,000 letters to and from Darwin survive. These letters are largely unstudied and contain enough interesting material to be the subject of quite a number of PhD studies. The letters are being transcribed and published by the Wallace Correspondence Project, which is up and running again after a break of two years. We are working on volume 1 of Wallace Correspondence and plan to publish it before our current funding (2.5 years) ends.

    1. I forgot to add that the Wallace Correspondence Project (WCP) is very kindly being hosted by The Charles Darwin Trust (http://www.charlesdarwintrust.org). Our ‘boss’ is Randal Keynes (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Randal_Keynes) – Charles Darwin’s great-great grandson! This clearly demonstrated the goodwill between the Darwin and Wallace families – reflecting the close friendship that existed between Darwin and Wallace. For more information about the WCP see http://www.wallaceletters.info

    1. The very best is Raby, P. (2001). Alfred Russel Wallace, A Life. Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press; London: Chatto & Windus. 340 pp. Someone needs to do one in two thick volumes as his life was pretty eventful and complex!

    2. The book recommended by George Beccaloni is good, but I think you were thinking of a biogeography, rather than a biography. Although I’ve not looked closely at the latest edition (I have an earlier one, by Brown and Gibson– the authorship has undergone 100% turnover!), I think Biogeography by Lomolino, Riddle, and Whittaker would be the best biogeography text. The earlier editions had a section on Wallace’s contributions to biogeography– I’m not sure if that section is in the latest editions.


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